Bob Metcalfe — The Man (and Lessons) Behind Ethernet, Metcalfe's Law, and More (#297)

“Never fire anybody alone.” — Bob Metcalfe

Bob Metcalfe is an MIT-Harvard-trained engineer-entrepreneur who became an Internet pioneer in 1970, invented Ethernet in 1973, and founded 3Com Corporation in 1979. About 1.2B Ethernet ports were shipped last year — 400M wired and 800M wireless (Wi-Fi).

3Com went public in 1984, peaked at $5.7B in annual sales in 1999, and after 30 years became part of HP last year. Bob was a publisher-pundit for IDG-InfoWorld for about 10 years and a venture capitalist for about 10 years with Polaris Venture Partners, where he continues as a Venture Partner.

Bob is a member of the National Academy of Engineering and a recipient of the National Medal of Technology.

In this conversation, we talk about everything from how he toasts when drinking with friends, how he learned to recruit and fire, what he does to scale businesses, different approaches to talent evaluation, critical decisions and mistakes made, and much more. Please enjoy!

You can find the transcript of this episode here. Transcripts of all episodes can be found here.

Bob Metcalfe -- The Man (and Lessons) Behind Ethernet, Metcalfe's Law, and More

Want to hear another conversation with a fascinating polymath?  Listen to this episode with Kevin Kelly, in which we discuss population implosions, The Long Now Foundation, organizational methods for learning, and much more? — Listen to them here (stream below or right-click to download part 1 | part 2 | part 3):

Ep 25: Kevin Kelly - WIRED Co-Founder, Polymath, Most Interesting Man In The World
Ep 26: Kevin Kelly (Part 2) - WIRED Co-Founder, Polymath, Most Interesting Man In The World?
Ep 27: Kevin Kelly (Part 3) - WIRED Co-Founder, Polymath, Most Interesting Man In The World?

This episode is brought to you by WeWork. I haven’t had an office in almost two decades, but working from home and coffee shops isn’t always what it’s cracked up to be. When I moved to Austin, one of the first things I did was get a space at WeWork, and I could not be happier. It’s dog friendly and serves the best cold-brew coffee on tap I’ve ever had!

WeWork is a global network of work spaces where companies and people grow together — in fact, more than ten percent of Fortune 500 companies use WeWork. The idea is simple: you focus on your business, and WeWork takes care of the rest — front desk service, utilities, refreshments, and more. WeWork now has more than 200 locations all over the world, so chances are good there’s one near you. Check out to become a part of the global WeWork community!

This episode is also brought to you by Peloton, which has become a staple of my daily routine. I picked up this bike after seeing the success of my friend Kevin Rose, and I’ve been enjoying it more than I ever imagined. Peloton is an indoor cycling bike that brings live studio classes right to your home. No worrying about fitting classes into your busy schedule or making it to a studio with a crazy commute.

New classes are added every day, and this includes options led by elite NYC instructors in your own living room. You can even live stream studio classes taught by the world’s best instructors, or find your favorite class on demand.

Peloton is offering listeners to this show a special offer. Visit and enter the code TIM at checkout to receive $100 off accessories with your Peloton bike purchase. This is a great way to get in your workouts, or an incredible gift. Again, that’s and enter the code TIM.

QUESTION(S) OF THE DAY: What was your favorite quote or lesson from this episode? Please let me know in the comments.

Scroll below for links and show notes…

Selected Links from the Episode

  • Connect with Bob Metcalfe:

Twitter | Facebook

Show Notes

  • Have I lived in Austin long enough to call myself an Austinite? [09:09]
  • What has Bob learned from tennis that applies elsewhere? [10:20]
  • What makes a good competitor? [12:48]
  • Has Bob always had the drive to compete, or was it something that developed over time? [15:30]
  • On playing doubles. [16:11]
  • How much time and energy did Bob spend developing strengths versus fixing weaknesses? [16:59]
  • What happened on May 22nd, 1973? [17:52]
  • How did the name “ethernet” come about? [18:47]
  • Why was ethernet’s conception such a game changer almost overnight? [20:07]
  • What led to Bob’s interest in electronic networks — and the roots of his animosity toward Harvard University? [21:49]
  • What is Metcalfe’s Law and when did it enter the picture? [28:54]
  • Why did Bob name his networking company 3Com, and what compelled him — as an engineer — to start a company in the first place? [34:21]
  • How did Bob get good enough at sales and marketing to take 3Com from zero to a million per month in revenue? [37:26]
  • Bob explains how operating ranges work. [42:41]
  • Why does Bob believe you should “never fire anybody alone?” [44:03]
  • Bob’s advice for anyone in the difficult position of having to fire or reassign somebody. [48:21]
  • Why does Bob consider “recruiting” a more accurate use of language for a company than “hiring?” [50:24]
  • What’s Bob’s playbook for effective recruitment? [52:15]
  • When recruiting at 3Com, how did Bob make his company attractive to candidates who had other options? [55:25]
  • The building blocks of credibility. [58:31]
  • Bob talks about Steve Jobs, a wedding, a flat tire, and high standards. [1:05:07]
  • “You are not obligated to change your mind just because you lose an argument.” -Butler Lampson [1:09:11]
  • A moment of gratitude from Steve Jobs. [1:11:03]
  • Common misunderstandings about Metcalfe’s Law and the network effect. [1:13:30]
  • On Facebook as “the Metcalfe’s Law company” that leverages the network effect. [1:17:10]
  • Bob talks about Dunbar’s Number and the limitations of close friendship. [1:19:00]
  • What is Bob’s go-to toast when he’s having a drink with friends? [1:24:16]
  • Bob talks about his summer camp and recites an E.E. Cummings poem he brings out when a friend passes away. [1:26:30]
  • Books most frequently gifted. [1:30:51]
  • As someone who admits a tendency to overcommit, how does Bob cope with feeling overwhelmed? [1:35:09]
  • How does Bob prioritize his commitments? [1:36:10]
  • The disadvantages of having a personal assistant. [1:38:24]
  • The disadvantages of answering email. [1:39:44]
  • What Bob has done to regain footing during tough times — like when Harvard rejected his PhD thesis. [1:40:57]
  • How di Bob overcome being rejected as CEO of his own company. [1:48:00]
  • What advice would Bob give to someone who faces similar adversity? [1:52:42]
  • For contrast, Bob shares one of his life’s high points. [1:57:39]
  • Parting thoughts on the American dream, capitalism, and our society’s perception of startups. [2:01:59]

People Mentioned

The Tim Ferriss Show is one of the most popular podcasts in the world with more than 900 million downloads. It has been selected for "Best of Apple Podcasts" three times, it is often the #1 interview podcast across all of Apple Podcasts, and it's been ranked #1 out of 400,000+ podcasts on many occasions. To listen to any of the past episodes for free, check out this page.

Leave a Reply

Comment Rules: Remember what Fonzie was like? Cool. That’s how we’re gonna be — cool. Critical is fine, but if you’re rude, we’ll delete your stuff. Please do not put your URL in the comment text and please use your PERSONAL name or initials and not your business name, as the latter comes off like spam. Have fun and thanks for adding to the conversation! (Thanks to Brian Oberkirch for the inspiration.)

28 Replies to “Bob Metcalfe — The Man (and Lessons) Behind Ethernet, Metcalfe's Law, and More (#297)”

  1. You are not broken, you are not alone. You are just wired to feel a lot. Are you a super-feeler? Tim, can we please chat for 5-min?

  2. Tim do you have a short list of podcasts on nutrition? I have listened to Attia (podcasts and YouTube) but am trying to round out a process with a bit more detail and conviction. Also inspired by the gentlemen and tribe of mentors who took his PSA to virtually 0. Amazing. Thanks.

  3. Tim! you are one of the 5 people I surround myself with, thanks to a long commute. I don’t know if you realise how much your work has changed my life and probably 1000’s of others. That kind of work is special. and you probably will never grasp the impact or be able to see a statistic on it.

    I wish this thank you could be as cool as a thank you from Steve Jobs.

  4. Hi Tim. My name is Rabbi David Felsenthal and I’m the Chief

    Innovation Officer of perhaps the largest Jewish Non Profit in the world. I have been a big fan of yours ever since I got my first copy of 4 hour work week when it first came out. I will be in Austin on business next week and would love to meet you even if only briefly.

  5. Hey Tim, long time listener, first time commenter. I’ve paid attention to your “what I’m listening to” blog sections for a while now looking for an indication of your move to Austin. I’m curious about how much the live music scene has crept into your life there? Honestly though, I’m interested in the overall reception you’ve had in Austin (music, food, business, creative, etc). Though I live in CA, it’s my home state and that’s my favorite city there. Hope you’re transitioning well!

  6. Tim, I’m trying to download your podcasts and it isn’t working. I want to listen on my phone while I walk. It won’t stream because it says it requires a wifi connection. I right click where instructed, but what comes up is ‘Save link as…’ It doesn’t download. I’ve tried it on my phone (Galaxy S7) and my computer (Windows 10) with no luck. I’m sure I’m missing a lot of real good information.

    Please help me soon.

  7. Re: Today’s ‘Five-Bullet Friday’.

    Yes, friend from SLC is correct. I too live here and recently attended a chocolate & spirits class where this was taught.

    Curious, could you please reach out to me to connect me with someone on Tim’s team about presenting at Silicon Slopes Tech Summit 2019? I’m involved with the event and we had 15K attendees this year. Tim is someone our community would love to hear from. And yes, I have listened to his ‘How to say NO’ episode. I believe this would be compelling to him and I would ensure he gets the best tech/bbq experience (with BBQ champions from all over the States, even Dallas) here in Salt Lake City.


  8. Happy 5-Bullet Friday Tim!

    Been listening to your podcasts, reading your books, etc. for the past few years – they’ve been such great resources. You’re a huge fan of the movie Memento and were talking in this podcast with Bob about momento mori. Did you know that the movie is adapted from a short story written by Christopher Nolan called “Momento Mori”? It can be found on Esquire’s website via a simple internet search. It’s a bit different from the film but equally interesting.

    Hoping this is something new to you that I can share as a small thank you for all you have provided me and your many fans. Thanks again for all you do!


  9. Hi Tim.

    Another great podcast which I enjoyed taking notes for [Moderator: additional text removed]. It was a long conversation with many insightful specifics.

    It may seem like “never fire anybody alone” was your favorite. I don’t know if I speak for myself or for other people as well, but was stuck most was the part where it was mentioned how Steve Jobs (and Bill Gates as well) “could make you feel like you were an idiot and you will suffer for the rest of your life if you didn’t agree with him”.

    An enjoyable podcast, looking forward to other guests from Texas. This seems to be the place where you’re able to find new connections right now.


  10. Do you have a list of your current and past sponsors? I listen in the car so can’t make notes to remind me to follow up. A while ago you mentioned a brand of pants you like. I am finally in the market for that but can’t find anything on that sponsor

  11. Hello,

    Tools of Titans is heading my way, and I can’t wait to read the book! I am new to your podcast but have been loving it, and the products you promote. The four sigmatic coffee- yummy. The MeUndies amazing.

    I am looking forward to your book, and gaining some tips and sights for my start up business….[Moderator: additional text removed.]

    “If we go down into ourselves we find exactly what we desire” (Simone Weil), and your podcasts have fostered that philosophy….and I will use a Tony Robbins quote here as well… “beliefs are a poor substitute for experiences”. Thank you Tim Ferriss. I am grateful and appreciate the work you do. Looking forward to Tools of Titans – whoop whoop!

    Ex Animo,

    Victoria Eakin.

  12. An enjoyable podcast to listen to, and it is fun for me to think back where I was in my own life and technology career at the time of some of the stories and “legends” that Bob relayed.

    Quick comment – The application of Metcalfe’s Law to Facebook includes two very shaky assumptions: 1. that each new FB user makes an equal or significant contribution as all the other users (we all know better than that, don’t we?), and 2. that a Facebook algorithm does not inadvertently deny or disrupt what would have otherwise been a valuable connection between users.

  13. Great podcast ep – the sociologist that Bob was referring to in the chat but couldn’t remember his name is Robin Dunbar

  14. Great to listen to a man who was there at the beginnings of the recent tech boom. Really love these non-live podcasts Tim. The audio quality is superb.

  15. Bob shared some great stuff. Offering people a different slot vs. just letting them go.

    I had no idea Xerox, back in the day, had such a developmental play ground, such as in PaloAlto, CA.

    I also liked when he minded students that IBM, GM, G.E. were all “start up’s” at one time.

    Tim a super job of getting a guest to share. A’hoy, A’hoy, A’hoy.

  16. ‪@tferriss, @BobMetcalfe – fascinating discussion. Glad it’s been recorded for prosperity. As someone who’s worked in IT since 2004 it’s very interesting to hear stories from people who’ve seen and influenced the changing landscape over such a long period.‬

    I found the parts discussing the challengesand differences between engineering roles and sales and management particularly insightful.

  17. @Tim I love ur work I really do and this is why I’m asking you to have a transcript of ur audios. It’s essential for non native english speaking people. Besides I prefer screening through text than through audio, it is more difficult.

  18. @ 01:23:41 Mr. Metcalfe wishes for a tool that types what you have typed before: I made software that does just that beatenpath in 2016 – just made my day !!! p.s You are awesome Tim.

  19. Hi Tim, had a chance to meet with Dr. Metcalfe yesterday in the new engineering building at UT, which is worth checking out if you haven’t seen it yet. I’m currently a PhD student in advertising in the Moody College of Communication, and he was very welcoming and had some great suggestions for turning research projects into startup ideas. If you’re up for it I’m glad to invite you to come by for a visit to campus once things get back to normal after SXSW.

  20. THANK YOU! Your interview with Bob Metcalfe was well timed.

    Stories about executive-level transitions in general are rare. Bob’s story about his transition — and not breaking the racket — is the only one I’ve heard where the transition actually went well. I needed to know how that happens, and this came at just the right time. It is one of many tactical bits of advice I’ve gleaned from your podcasts. This one was particularly rich, as I also found myself telling the story of Metcalfe’s law as a networking example, as well as a couple of other stories from this episode. Definitely hit the top 10% for me!

  21. Tim, I was delighted to discover this nearly-missed podcast… The combination of tech, business & anecdotes was perfect + the added bonus of tennis to tie it all together! Now all i can think to ask you is: “When are you going to interview Brad Gilbert!” 😉 Thanks again so much for the great work you do.